About the time Jonah Berger was wrapping up graduate school, his father asked about his latest research. Berger said that he was studying social influence. His father started lamenting its effect on his peers. “DC lawyers are such conformists,” his dad said. “They make partner and the first thing they all do is go out and buy a new BMW.” Berger paused. “But, Dad, aren’t you a DC lawyer? And don’t you actually drive a BMW?” His father replied, “Yeah, but they all drive gray ones and I drive a blue one.”
Even after years of research, Berger is surprised at how people — his own kin included — are so quick to identify the effects of social influence on others, but fail to see those same influences at work on themselves. A Wharton professor and bestselling author of Contagious and Invisible Influence, Berger has spent over 15 years studying how social influence works and how it leads products, services and ideas to catch on. His work has been featured in major publications and applied to drive product strategy and adoption for Fortune 500 companies and startups alike.
In this exclusive interview, Berger deconstructs the drivers behind social influence in the startup world and offers why we should influence — and are influenced — by increment. He offers ways to apply this practice internally, such as for performance evaluations, and for more external, public endeavors like product launches. Lastly, he suggests a few habits that can help individuals manage and leverage social influence in the workplace.
People are often unaware of how influence affects them because it happens unconsciously or beyond our awareness. We can’t see it. Precisely because it’s invisible, there are often two visceral reactions: “It happens to others, but not to me” or “It happens to me and I don’t trust it.” To Berger, influence is neither discriminatory nor deceptive in and of itself; everyone is influenced and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Take my dad and his BMW,” Berger says. “First, he felt he made a choice based on personal preference, but his inclination was really shaped by his environment. He bought the same brand that others in his peer group were buying, but a different color to stand out. Second, while we commonly think of influence as imitation or being the same as others, choosing to be different is being influenced as well. And third, influence isn’t just about being the same or different. We often declare our identity by doing both at the same time, behaving in ways that simultaneously let us fit in and stand out. Our choices — and ourselves — are a fusion of influences.”
Influence is not a one-grape varietal. It’s always a blend.
In a startup world that idolizes iconoclasts, there’s an immediate gravitation toward disruption and differentiation. That’s not a bad instinct according to Berger, but it’s not the whole story. The byproduct of this default is that most downplay — and dangerously neglect — the level of influence of others on organizations.
“In venture-backed markets especially, there’s a premium placed on being disruptive. There’s no sweeter sound to investors’ ears than ‘We’re going to change the way it’s done forever.’ For companies raising capital, it’s smart for founders to frame their startup as disruptive,” says Berger. “But, when it comes to customers, being different doesn’t always work. People like things that feel familiar, that are easy to adopt. A product or service that is distant from what they’re used to and have engaged with in the past has a tougher time catching on.”
That’s not to say that products or services can’t be innovative — they must be a blend of the old and new: part revolutionary and part reminiscent. It’s not just about the technology, but the bridge to a familiar context. The transportations sector offers a clear example. “From the start, the Segway had impressive technology and the chance to totally change the way transportation was done forever. The self-balancing personal transporter was backed by Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and John Doerr, but ended up as one of the biggest flops of its decade,” says Berger. “A big reason is that consumers didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t a car, not quite a bike or really like a skateboard. They couldn’t figure out the situations they’d use it for or with whom.”
Juxtapose that offering with the invention of the car. “Now commonplace, automobiles at their inception were as unusual and perplexing as the Segway. People were scared of the car; rural Americans called it the ‘Devil’s Wagon.’ They saw cars as a symbol of the decadence of the city and introduced laws to restrict them,” says Berger. “At the turn of the century, one inventor came up with a clever solution. His buggy, called the Horsey Horseless, sported a life-size replica of a horse’s head on the front of the carriage. It’s easy to laugh at and dismiss a fake horse head as silly, but this addition made the car more familiar and less threatening — not only to people, but horses, who were less likely to get spooked.”
For Berger, the different outcomes of the Segway and Horsey Horseless can be in large part attributed to The Goldilocks Effect. “As customers, our emotional reactions are similar to the protagonist from the children’s tale, Goldilocks and The Three Bears. Whether it has to do to the softness of the bears’ beds or temperature of their porridge, Goldilocks is turned off by the extremes,” says Berger. “When it comes to new product or service adoption, the outcomes follow the same inverted U-shape curve. If something is too novel, it’s unfamiliar, weird and harder to understand. But if it’s exactly the same as what is happening already, it’s boring and there’s no reason to change behavior. In between, though, it’s just right.”
Successful, radical innovations often involve cloaking technology in a familiar façade.
Getting the middle option that’s “just right” takes a balance of the old and new and influencing users incrementally when launching products or services. Here are more modern applications of this approach to illustrate the value of building moderately discrepant products:
Ease technology transitions via Trojan horse. “When introducing the digital video recorder, TiVo could have built any casing for its technology, but it opted for a black, rectangular box that sat below the TV or above a cable box,” says Berger. “Knowing that customer adoption and changing consumer behavior was critical, the company emulated the look and feel of traditional VCRs. By hiding the technology in familiar façade, the transition to a new technology became more palatable.”
Divert on a dimension (or two). “Chobani has become synonymous with Greek yogurt. But not only was it not the first to market, the original, most popular yogurt in Greece had a decade's head start. Yet the incumbent never caught on in the US,” says Berger. “Why not? The original offering was too unfamiliar to American consumers. Not only did they not know what Greek yogurt meant, but it was mostly offered in large, family-sized containers and the only flavor was plain. Issuing a single-serving size was a clear first step, but the incremental innovation was putting fruit — such as a berry mix — at the bottom of each container. The Greek yogurt on top stayed the same, but the smaller size and familiar flavors better resembled what Americans knew. Chobani gained market share by being similar to — versus being entirely different from — the competition.”
Switch up the shell. “Many pregnancy tests are essentially the same product, relying on the same technology, but customer’s reasons for buying them vary. Some people are hoping to get pregnant. They’ve been trying and trying. So the packaging and positioning caters to that. They sell the product in value packs with multiple tests and the image of a happy baby on the front. But other people are the exact opposite. They’re hoping not to get pregnant. They want anything but a happy, smiling baby. So for this segment the packaging sells speed of results and promises of reducing worry. Same product, different shell to cater to different audiences.
Many organizations use titles, levels and compensation bands to denote skill set and seniority, yet they struggle to inspire improvement through performance evaluations. “Companies have increasingly moved to peer comparisons to gauge performance. Social comparisons can be a powerful tool,” says Berger. “Take a completely different context, saving energy. Appealing to cost savings or helping the environment sounds great, but it doesn’t change behavior. What does is social comparisons. Clean tech company Opower built its business by comparing people to their neighbors and using that to motivate them to save energy.”
Opower saw changes in consumers’ actions once it started sharing the energy savings that their neighbors enjoyed. “What doesn’t work is just getting a bill in the mail. There’s no context of whether or not you’re using a lot of energy. There’s no reference point to the losses and gains,” says Berger. “But when consumers saw how much energy a neighbor with a similarly sized house was using they had a better sense of where they should stand. Combined with specific tactics to save energy, such as replacing electronics or adjusting settings, Opower’s programs led to reduce energy consumption by about 2%. Over the life of these programs, that’s the rough equivalent of taking homes in Alaska and Hawaii off the power grid for an entire year.”
Social comparisons can generate similar results at the office, but few organizations have designed them effectively. “Traditionally, companies have defaulted to a ranking in which one winner is celebrated, such as the top salesperson or engineer of the month. In some ways, this system is solid — it lets people know there’s a leader board and sets the benchmark for recognized performance,” says Berger. “But it also demotivates the rest of the people who know their performance will never measure up. Instead our focus should be on close comparison or what I call proximal peers.”
Trends in NBA basketball games’ halftime scores illustrate this point well. “We studied thousands of games and not surprisingly found that teams that were up at halftime are more likely to win the game. The one exception was teams that were behind by just a little. Even though they were worse teams or average, feeling like they were close enough to close the gap motivated them to work harder. They came out of halftime fired up, increased productivity and were more successful as a result.”
Applied to the workplace, evaluation by close comparison can be an effective way to inspire immediate and improved performance. “When compared to a proximal peer — particularly someone who’s performing slightly better, people push themselves to work harder. But if compared to the best performer, it’s often too far of a reach to stay motivated. When they can barely see the summit, there’s less motivation and discipline to scale the mountain,” says Berger. “Instead of telling someone that they’re 27th out of 200 in the company, say to them: ‘You did really well this quarter, but Monica did slightly better in this area. Next quarter or month, see if you can do better than her.’ Position people in their segment of an overall ranking to benchmark them with people of similar — but slightly better — ability and performance. They’ll be more likely to engage and make the effort to meet their new mark.”
Berger admits that this technique shouldn’t be used across every dimension of performance, but used mostly for key areas where you’d like to see improvement. “There’s a danger in telling someone month over month that they’re always slightly behind. Of course, sprinkle in earned positive feedback and save this tactic for strategic areas that will benefit the individual and company in the short-term,” he says, “It’s true that this can create competition among colleagues, but at least they’ll feel it’s a competition they can win. It’s more effective than comparing everyone to the leader — which still fosters competition — or to historical performance of the individual, which won’t often inspire the same drive to outperform.”
When Berger has worked with smaller startups with fewer people, he’s recommended that they benchmark with peers from other similarly-sized companies. “At that stage, there are so few hands on deck, so inspiring individual performance and team cohesion can be achieved by looking outward,” he says, “In those cases, be realistic in the short term. You're probably not going to beat Google tomorrow. Pick a few proximal peers that are currently doing better than you but are realistic benchmarks. The longer-term, aim-for-the-stars vision should be in place to fuel a sequence of sprints in the short-term, that, if sustained, will be realized.”
In Invisible Influence, Berger cautions readers to not fall prey to believing that they’re immune to social influence. Here are three tactics to harness the power of social influence and control it in the workplace.
Be a chameleon. When people think of chameleons, they tend to think of one thing: changing color to fit your surrounding environment. It turns out that the same tactic can be useful for people as well. “Subtly emulating other people—their mannerisms, facial expressions, or language—will increase your influence. Negotiators who mirrored the behavior of their negotiating partner, for example, were five times more likely to reach a deal. Waiters or waitresses who echo their customers’ orders, repeating back their selection word-for-word to confirm, get 70% higher tips. Speed daters who mimicked one another more were more likely to go on a second date,” says Berger. “Mimicry increases liking and trust as well as facilitates social interactions. It turns acquaintances into friends and enemies into partners.”
Nominate a designated dissenter. Social influence is particularly potent in group settings, so teams must proactively manage it in meetings. “There’s a fine line between the wisdom of crowds, where groups make better decisions than individuals, and groupthink, where individuals blindly follow a prevailing opinion,” says Berger. “Someone suggests doing X, and the next person, who might’ve been thinking of Y, will tend to go with X as suggested by the first person, especially if that person is senior. Even if they’re on the fence or have valuable input to share, they’re more likely to go with X, especially in a group context.”
To avoid the tendency to follow others’ opinions by default, nominate a designated dissenter. “Everyone eventually tires of the self-proclaimed devil’s advocate, so the designated dissenter needs to be identified at the start of the meeting and given the proper framing. The person should not be the most senior or junior person. The lead of the meeting should say that the designated dissenter’s job is to disagree, regardless of her actual stance,” says Berger. “This does three things. First, it protects the designated dissenter from disdain as it’s her role to play not necessarily her actual style or personality. Second, it gets that person to inject dissenting ideas into discussion. And, third, it frees up everyone else up to share their own independent thoughts. Even if they don’t agree with the dissenter, the fact that there is dissent makes it no longer a matter of right and wrong but a matter of opinion. And when it’s a matter of opinion, everyone feels more comfortable sharing their own perspective.”
Cascade into consensus. When you want to sway a group, assess the conviction of the room and use a domino effect to create consensus. “Let’s say you’re in a hiring committee and you prefer candidate A to candidate B. If the group is on the fence, you’ll find varying degrees of support around the office: some may be 50% sure of A, others will be 40%, a few 30% convinced, and so on,” says Berger. “To get people to go your way, strategically build consensus before the meeting by picking the order of people with whom you speak. Overtly canvas for the vote of the 50%-in-support-of-A people, and once you’ve convinced them, the 40% group will be more likely to support you because you have more backers on your side. Groups are more likely to swing your direction once you’ve made their similarly-convinced neighbor a champion. Once you’ve got most support on your side, ask for a vote before the decision is made. Consensus is only valuable if others know you have it. ”
Our own personal thoughts and opinions don’t drive our choices as much as we think. Influence often works invisibly, but it can be understood and managed by increment. That may mean bringing a product to market as a blend of the futuristic and familiar or motivating others to perform better by benchmarking with their proximal peers. Individuals can make social influence work in their favor if they learn how there’s a dosage of conformity in ingenuity.
“When you're focused on winning customers, it’s easy to forget to make yourself similar to what they know. Change comes from not just flaunting what makes you different; it’s also about how you can cloak or blend that difference with familiarity. What we’re accustomed to may not be ‘disruptive’ but familiarity is part of the reason we like it,” says Berger. “Social influence isn’t good or bad. But by understanding how it works can we decide when to resist it and when to embrace it.”